Mountainous, sparsely populated Mondulkiri province sees fewer travellers in a year than Rattanakiri does in a month. Despite heavy logging, Mondulkiri still has impenetrable jungle and is home to rare and endangered wildlife, including water buffalo, Asian dogs, elephants and green peafowl. Besides its jungle scenery and cool climate (conducive to hiking), Mondulkiri’s attraction lies in its isolation, although the only sights accessible to visitors are the compact provincial capital, Sen Monorom, and several gushing waterfalls, among them the mighty Bou Sraa. It’s the place to come for an authentic elephant trek, and the chance to help out at an elephant care centre.
The main group of indigenous people of this impoverished province are the Phnong; not so long ago they made up nearly eighty percent of its population. In the 1990s they were joined by an influx of Khmer, who returned from the refugee camps in Thailand and could not afford to live in Cambodia’s towns; the Khmer are still coming, though nowadays it’s rich ones who are buying land cheaply then clearing it for farms and plantations. In recent years there have been a number of incidences of Vietnamese hill tribes (montagnards) fleeing here to avoid persecution at home; initially they were put in refugee camps set up by the UN, but most have now either been repatriated or have emigrated to the US. Most recently, easy access to the province has seen expats moving here, either seeking a reclusive haven or looking for a business opportunity.
Regrettably, Mondulkiri’s unique, grassy rolling hillsides continue to be threatened; a few years ago bauxite was discovered by the Australian giant BHP Billiton, though fortunately they’ve decided that the reserves aren’t worth bothering with (for the moment). Now, with the blessing of the Cambodian government, Chinese gold miners are quarrying about 51km northwest of Sen Monorom in Mimong.Read More
SEN MONOROM is still little more than a large village with its houses spread sparsely over a couple of kilometres, culminating in a cluster of buildings around the market in the centre of town. You can set off on foot in any direction and soon be in unspoilt and isolated countryside, though there are only a limited number of tracks.
The two lakes close to town are pleasant for an early morning or late afternoon stroll, while 2km northeast from town, is the sacred mountain, Phnom Dosh Kramom (known as Youk Srosh Phlom to the Phnong), a small hill with a meditation pagoda, from which there are splendid views. Keep going for a further 5km or so on the same road, then turn off right along a track and you’ll come to oddly named Sea Forest (follow the signs); if you’re lucky you’ll have the area to yourself and be able to gaze wistfully into the misty distance where the majestic trees of the remaining jungle meet the sky. Look at it from upside down – legs astride with your head between them – and you can see why the forest got its name, for indeed it does seem that you’re all at sea.
Cambodia’s highlands used to be home to 10,000 elephants; now there are just a few hundred with around 56 in domestic use in Mondulkiri. Still, though, the reason that many visitors venture to the province is to take an elephant ride through the jungle. Guesthouse or bar owners in Sen Monorom can help you arrange it, or contact The Bunong Place on the main road in town. Treks start either from the village of Phulung, about 8km north of town, or from Potang, 8km to the south; a half- or full day rolling around on an elephant costs $15/30, including transport to the village, a Phnong-speaking guide and lunch if you’re out for the full day. Overnight camping treks are also possible, but for most the novelty wears off after a few hours of bumping about.